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Tales of A Principal In Sneakers

Doing It All

By Alexandra HardySpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / November 17, 1997



PORTLAND, ORE.

Starting today, the Monitor will follow Gregg Wolleck through a year as principal at Kellogg Middle School in Portland, Ore. Like many principals these days, he wears numerous hats: administrator, disciplinarian, counselor, curriculum builder. His urban school is struggling with budget cuts and the needs of a growing immigrant community. These challenges are viewed from his perspective.

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Greg Wolleck skips his lunch each afternoon to man the pizza line at the Kellogg Middle School cafeteria here. He also picks up trash he finds strewn around campus. And he spends after-school hours dropping by his students' hangouts to make sure they aren't getting into trouble.

He juggles these duties with the more usual demands of his job as principal - planning budgets, hiring teachers, overseeing the school curriculum. After 21 years as an educator, he's an all-service principal.

Mr. Wolleck bears little resemblance to principals of years past, who often ran their schools as small fiefdoms, rarely consulting staff about decisions. With his gray beard, colorful ties, and high-top sneakers, Wolleck is far more accessible. In fact, the shoes of the $69,000-a-year administrator are perhaps the best reflection of his management style - easy- going, pragmatic, flexible.

Like his peers around the nation, budget cuts have forced Wolleck to make do with less at a time when community expectations are higher than ever. As the school year rolled into the second month, Wolleck lost four positions - two teachers, one counselor, and one assistant special education instructor. The impetus for the cuts was a budget decrease and a drop in the projected enrollment to 668 students.

"There are fewer resources around," he says. "There's less cafeteria staff. The building is only cleaned every other day as opposed to every day. There's less custodial support. There's less counseling support.

"But the needs are still there. And everyone, myself included, expects them to be addressed." Nobody sits back and says, 'What are we not going to do anymore?' We still expect for those things to happen, so we need to all pitch in and make them happen. And I think it's true - I don't ask people to do things I wouldn't do myself."

Wolleck, who became a father for the first time six months ago, grew up about a half mile from the red-brick schoolhouse. Kellogg rises three stories over a lower-middle-class section of southeast Portland. The neighborhood remains predominantly white, as it was when Wolleck was growing up. But now it is home to an influx of immigrants, mostly from Southeast Asia, the former Soviet Union, and Latin America.

At a parent-teacher meeting last year, a parent who had emigrated from Russia could not believe Wolleck was a school principal. The man had seen the chief administrator picking up trash one afternoon and felt it was beneath someone in his position.

Redefining the role

"We each have our own ways of approaching our roles," Wolleck says. But even his perceptions of the job have evolved. When he took his first principal position in 1983, he thought it was his task to run the school and solve problems. "And that's pretty much what I did when I first got there," he says, "managed the building and solved problems."

In time, however, he learned that the job required far more work in the areas of curriculum and community relations.

He was in his early 30s when he took that first job as principal of a Portland elementary school. He had spent eight years as teacher and district administrator. Now, he was supervising educators who had been in the teaching profession 30 years.

Wolleck felt pressure to make the right choices in front of those veterans. After all, he says, they had much more experience and had survived many principals. He wasn't too proud to ask questions, to learn from them. "I couldn't assume that because I'm the principal I know all," he says.

Six years after Wolleck became a principal, the Oregon Legislature nudged principals across Oregon to adopt a more collaborative management style. In Portland, each public school now has an improvement council composed of teachers, parents, community members, school secretaries, custodians, aides, and the principal. Kellogg's council meets twice a month. The council determines the school's need, sets goals, and measures progress.

At a time when the community plays more of a role in steering the school, the community itself faces mounting problems. More than half of Kellogg's students qualify for the free-lunch program. Economic hardship and splintered homes have forced the school to become a full-service institution, picking up slack from churches and extended families. Educators find themselves counseling students and their parents.

"We've gotten to this system of looking at schools for a lot more than schools can really provide," Wolleck says. "We do a lot, but we can't provide everything."

At the same time, the minimum standards for achievement tests are higher than ever before.

Frustration over funding

Morale is shaky in the Portland School District. Recent property-tax reduction measures slashed funding. The district superintendent quit recently to head the national Outward Bound program in part because of frustration over funding. Wolleck and other educators are left to contend with the public's growing distrust of public institutions.

"They always feel there's inefficiency," Wolleck says, "that they could do more for less. It helps justify property-tax cuts, because you think if they worked harder, they could do a better job."

So the schools do work harder, and they make do with less, and principals like Wolleck become the fixers. They work their diminishing staffs harder, as expectations rise and funding falls, and find in time that working the lunchtime pizza line and stooping for trash isn't beneath them at all.